The Voiceless child
By. Caroline Makumbe
June 16, is a day which most of us wish had never happened. Though isolated to South Africa, the day has since been celebrated across the African continent as the Day of the African Child, with the commemorations taking place this year under the theme, “Leave No Child Behind for Africa’s Development.” Forty-two years after the Soweto Uprising of 16 June 1976, I look at the inequalities which still exist in Africa and it pains me. It pains me because I sit and wonder to myself what justice truly means forty-two years later for the millions of African children who continue to be left behind daily by our governments, societies and policies.
I vividly remember my very first experience of Apartheid, even though you could argue the experience came post-apartheid in the mid-90s, when one of my favourite actors of all times, Whoopi Goldberg convinced Disney to make the movie Sarafina in 1992. So, in essence, had it not been for Whoopi Goldberg, many 10-year olds like myself at the time, would never had been awarded the privilege of experiencing apartheid.
I remember the very first time I watched the movie, it wasn’t at the cinema, it was on a Video Home System (VHS) at home. I was filled with so much excitement and anticipation for the movie and it left me paralysed with emotions that to this day, cannot be defined by an English dictionary. I was angry. Angry for a system that I was not physically exposed to. Angry for a people that were not mine. Sarafina brought June 16 to life for me, it transported the pain and struggles of the students killed that day and embedded them into the memories of a 10-year-old girl who was not even South African.
Like Sarafina who was fighting for equal rights in education, In Africa we have 150 million Sarafina fighting for an equal chance to be children, to get an education and not to get married early. Noura Hassan is one of those Sarafina’s, forced to get married at the age of 15 years, run away to pursue her dream of having an education, tricked back into an abusive marriage, which forced her to kill her abusive husband.
Recently, along with my acquaintances in the civil society and human rights world, we have been advocating for the Government of Sudan to pardon the 19-year-old Noura Hussein, a victim of child marriage, who is accused of killing her husband for raping and trying to rape her. When I first heard the story, I was appalled. I could not believe in 2018 we as Africa could be fighting for a nation to review its child marriage policies. I could not believe a country such as Sudan would have a minimum age of marriage as 10 years. To be honest, I cannot imagine my 10-year-old niece being married off. She is just a mere child.
Now in the process of advocating for the pardon of Noura, I came across a documentary produced by Jekesa Pfungwa Vulingqondo (JPV), a civil society organisation working on ending child marriage in Zimbabwe. The documentary featured a family which follows a “vapostori” religious sect, which is popular in Zimbabwe. You can imagine my shock and embarrassment at the realisation that Zimbabwe the country I was born in, the same country which in 1995 ratified the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child which clearly states under Article 21 (1) the minimum age of marriage as 18 years, was also guilty of violating the rights and welfare of children.
Personally, child marriage was a term associated with countries such as Sudan and Tanzania – a distant thing – but not in my country, no, not in Zimbabwe. At no point did I ever think Zimbabwe had a child marriage challenge. What made this revelation worse for me to comprehend, was the fact that this particular church has a branch less than a kilometre from my parents’ home in an urban city. We grew up knowing exactly what was happening in that church and we still do and yet the issue of child marriage remains inconspicuous in Zimbabwe, let alone my parents’ street which is just a stone throw away from this particular church.
As an advocate for child rights, the question that resonates in my mind is why I was not aware of child marriage in my home country? What is it in me that failed to identify the injustice towards children by this religious sect which had its base close to my home? What is the difference between raping a child and child marriage, particularly in those countries that have ratified the African Children’s Charter? Why is it that rape is considered a violation against human rights, yet child marriage goes unnoticed in countries such as Zimbabwe and South Africa where I live? Are the two not the same? Should we not treat child marriage instigators in the same manner as we treat rapists?
Until I saw the documentary, I honestly could not fathom why it is so difficult for most African countries and religious sects to end child marriage. It pains me to say this, but for most of us we don’t physically see child marriage, even when it’s looking directly into our face. For most of us, child marriage happens “out there,” far from our reach, not in our countries and most definitely not near our homes and why is this so?
Prior to the 20th century, in most religions and cultures, when a girl reached puberty they were considered to be an adult and could be married off. Actually, when you think about it, why is it that our grand parents and great grand parents were married off as children and it was acceptable during that time? The question which reverberates in my mind is that if child marriage was considered a norm prior and most of the 20th century, why is it “suddenly” wrong in the 21st century? What has happened that has led to a sudden shift in thoughts and beliefs which have been plastered in our minds for centuries? Why was it acceptable for my grandmother to be married off as a teenage in the 1930s and not okay for my niece in 2018 to get married at the age of 10? What has changed?
Furthermore, does anyone know exactly when the advocacy for ending child marriage first began? Most of us cannot answer this simple question. All we know is that we living in a time in history where, because one child, a child we do not know and have never met, stood up somewhere in a part of the world where we have never been to and might never go to, and fought against child marriage and because women have become more independent and are now able to look after themselves financially, we find ourselves firmly believing child marriage is wrong, hence the revolution of ending child marriage. Could that be the reason why in the 21st century there is no rush or need for my 10-year-old niece to be married off to a man three times her age? What is the real reason behind us advocating to end child marriage in 2018? Why are you advocating to end child marriage? Most importantly why am I?
Personally, I believe most of us do not have a true understanding of why we are advocating to end child marriage. For most of us, child marriage is not associated to “me” and “you.” It remains something foreign, something practiced by certain religions, certain cultures, certain races, definitely not me, definitely not you, but “them.” But how many of our child relatives have been married off at the tender age of 14 simply because they fell pregnant? Yet to us this is not considered as child marriage. I believe unless and until we change our mindsets and remove the blinkers blinding us from seeing the truth right under our nose, the work we are doing will all be in vain. For how can I have the courage and determination to advocate ending child marriage 5000km away from my home and yet fail to recognise the practice right next door to my house, right in my extended family where I have witnessed a child relative being married off for falling pregnant.
What are we fighting for?
To be honest, I believe I’ve been fighting the wrong fight and lending my voice to the wrong cause. I’ve been fighting for girls out there and forgetting the fight begins right here at home. It begins with me, fighting for that cousin of mine who fell pregnant at the age of 14 because my government failed to provide Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE) to her. Fighting for my niece to be retained in school and get a good quality education to prevent her from dropping out of school and being enticed into getting married before she becomes an adult.
As civil society, we continue joining hands and fighting for the voiceless young girls like Noura who are trapped in religious sects and are denied the freedom and space to be children. I implore all of us, to start from within. I believe the advocacy for ending child marriage begins right in our homes. It begins with you and I acknowledging the fact that the voiceless child does not live 5000km away, but right here in my country, in my community and in my home. So, let us not remain quiet, let us speak up and lend our voices to the voiceless children, so as to empower them to find their own voices to fight for themselves.
I picture my niece when I think of child marriage, who do you picture? Your daughter, niece, neighbour? I pledge to play my part in the protection of the girl child in my home country. What is your pledge in ending child marriage? Forty-two years after the Soweto Uprising and the fight for justice for the African child continue.
Caroline Makumbe is a Programme Officer at the Graca Machel Trust in charge of Child Rights
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